This post is a guest contribution from Jacob Sobolev of Rock Guitar Universe
We’ve seen countless times how vintage guitars can reach prices that are sometimes double the price of the new instrument. While many think that the price is higher just because they are rare, others believe that there is a significant difference between the instruments.
But do electric guitars sound better with age? No, electric guitars do not sound better with age. The electric guitar sound doesn’t change much over the years. What changes is that the player gets familiar with the instrument and able to find those “sweet spots” that will produce a much richer sound. Thus making us believe that the sound changed over the years.
Naturally, if the guitar is in mint condition, and no one ever played it, the sound will be similar to the guitar you can get at the store, provided the hardware is the same.
What Causes The Real Sound Change In An Electric Guitar?
While there might be a difference in sound, electric guitars won’t change much over the years. Unlike acoustic guitars where wood resonates and has a lot less lacquer, electric guitars use pickups to create sound. But this doesn’t mean that the new guitar is the same as the old one. Each player will be more familiar with the guitar they played for a longer period of time. This familiar feeling will cause us to believe that the guitar sounds different. But more importantly, the feeling while playing the guitar will undoubtedly be different. Years of playing will create “sweet spots” on the neck of the guitar, where the tone might have even richer harmonic sound.
If you take a lower-budget guitar and load it with expensive pickups the sound coming from the guitar will be quite good. That’s really a main difference between cheap and expensive guitars.. But the feeling under the fingers will be different. You won’t feel like you play a thousand dollar guitar. Over the years, the guitar will shape itself based on guitarist’s playstyle and it will create a unique feel when you start playing it. This is especially noticeable if you have your own vintage instrument that you played for years. No other guitar will “feel” as the one you played for ages.
Besides the natural wearing of the guitar, the vibration of the strings will have an impact on the instrument as well. There are so many other factors that may impact the sound like changes in weather, moisture, humidity, and so on. I believe that the best guitar will be the one you spent hours playing, and that grew with you. While other guitars can be as good as that one, natural aging will make a lot of difference over the years.
How Electric Guitar Ages?
There are two main things that can make a difference in the sound of the electric guitar are pickups and an amplifier. Since pickups are basically magnets with copper wire wound around them, the sound can get weaker over time. The reason for this is that the magnet itself will become weaker over time. However, this process is rather long, and the chances of noticing it even after several decades are slim.
Furthermore, the other part of the guitar that might need changing is electronics. By electronics, I mean potentiometers and wiring. However, with proper care, everything will be fine and will work perfectly.
Besides electronics, and assuming that you didn’t leave your guitar to corrode, wood will get older as well. Over time, the guitar might resonate better as the wood age. The same thing will apply to both the neck and the body of the guitar. Moreover, the neck will get worn on the places where you play the most, and it might lose the original finish which is something that most players prefer. While there are guitars that offer lacquered finish with several millimeters of lacquer, many guitars will simply remove the finish to create that satin feel on the neck.
Another important factor is the finish. While the body of the guitar will change over the years and may impact the sound, the finish will also play a role in the way your guitar sounds after a while. For example, many believe that guitars with nitrocellulose finish will help the wood age better. On the other hand polyurethane finish that is probably the most common is quite thicker and won’t allow the wood to age as fast. As a result, the wood will remain the same for a longer period of time.
Why Do People Buy Vintage Guitars?
Before we go through the changes that can happen in the guitar over the years, there is one additional thing that makes vintage guitars so desirable. That’s legacy. Of course, you will have to pay more money to get the guitar that Jimi Hendrix played or even the same series. The reason for this is that everyone knows that the guitar is good, and you can achieve wonders with it. That’s why Jimi’s Fender Strat from 1968 was sold for 2 million dollars on a private auction.
But do these vintage guitars actually sound better simply because they’re older? Absolutely not. If you buy an older guitar, it’ll sound pretty similar throughout its entire life span (unless it’s upgraded of course).
Buying an old instrument is something that’s already been tested. All you have to do is go online, and see that Clapton, Knopfler, Gilmour, and many others played Stratocaster that is rather old. And in the end, if the guitar is good for them, it will be good for you. Furthermore, there are so many changes with each new series of electric guitars, that people are sometimes looking for “that old sound” only. And what is a better way to achieve it than getting vintage guitars?
In the end, there is something special about holding a piece of music history, and being able to create your own music on it. But the most important thing is the sound, and vintage guitars will undoubtedly sound different than the new instrument.
While we are on the topic of buying vintage guitars, the most expensive guitars in history have been vintage ones. These expensive guitars have been sold at the auction, and the prices are unbelievable. For example, Clapton sold both Brownie and Blackie at the auction several years ago. Brownie was the guitar that he used to record Layla, and the price was $450,000. On the other hand, he played Blackie for decades and he used six different Fender Stratocasters to create his ultimate guitar. This beauty was sold for a bit under a million! The most expensive guitar ever was sold for $2.7 million, and the money went to help victims of the tsunami in 2004. Clapton, Knopfler, Gilmour, Mick Jagger, Sting, and many others signed this instrument before the auction.
Why Vintage Guitars Sound Different?
The first and most obvious difference is in technology that is used to build a guitar. New guitars can add something that was unavailable thirty years ago, and while it is not a bad thing, some people will still dislike it. The second difference is in electronics, of course. We all know that pickups are the most important part of the guitar when it comes to sound, and there are a lot of differences between the pickups in the fifties and today.
But there is another important thing to consider. While the guitar is, in essence, the same, playing it for a while will also make a difference. The reason for this is that the guitar is almost adapting to the player, and as a result, it will wear out. The parts that are worn the most are neck and body.
If you take a look at the vintage instrument, the frets itself will be flatter, the backside of the neck will be without finish, and the body might show signs of aging as well. While the sound of the guitar will remain the same, the playability will be quite different. If you have an old guitar that you played for ages, you probably know how easy everything is. Not only that you are used to it, but it is used to you as well. Most guitarists will say that their best guitar is something they played for quite a while, and the reason for it is that they are used to it and vice versa.
Naturally, a bad guitar will be bad after any amount of time, but here I’m talking about at least decent instruments and the ones that were amazing from the start. Over the years, the wood of the guitar age as well, and it becomes more resonant and lighter. This can be apparent if you check some vintage acoustic guitar especially.
Do Vintage Guitars Require More Work?
The short answer is yes. While the sound may or may not change over the years, one thing is certain. Guitar will need a lot of work and repairs if it is played a lot. For example, if you find a very old guitar that’s been played a lot, you might need to re-fret it in order to make it playable again. Whenever you play the guitar, the strings will press the frets and after a while, you will need to change them.
Similarly, you might need to do the rewiring of the electronics, so you should be sure that the guitar is in good shape and properly stored and maintained.
Over the years, every part of the guitar will age. On some parts, it might be more noticeable than on the others. Chrome parts will remain chrome, and there won’t be much space for any changes other than for worse. But if you maintain your guitar properly, there won’t be any corrosion, and metal parts will remain the same.
On the other hand, the wood will age over the years. While the sound might not be significantly different (since the tone is shaped by the pickups) there will be a lot of changes. The more you play the guitar, the more it will adapt to your playstyle. As a result, the guitar you’ll have after a decade will be significantly different than the one you initially bought.
Overall, guitars do NOT sound better with age. The sound of an older guitar will remain almost the same, and the aging of the wood will make only a small difference. However, the game-changer will be the way guitar adapted to the individual player, and how different will it feel to play it compared to a new instrument. Many agree that one of the major differences between mid-range and high-end guitars is in personal feel while you play them. By aging, the guitar will become adjusted to the way you play, and the more you play it, the closer to you it will be. But if you are looking to improve the sound of the guitar or change it in any way, the best option would be to find a new set of pickups.